Golden fi­nale for farm­ing trio takes Chel­tenham back to its roots

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Cricket - By Mar­cus Army­tage

Af­ter a week dom­i­nated by two train­ers, Gor­don El­liott and Wil­lie Mullins, and one owner, Michael O’Leary, it was a good old sport­ing ro­mance that put an end to the blood­stock arms race at this year’s Chel­tenham Fes­ti­val.

Some of steeplechas­ing’s roots have branched out to ab­sorb nu­tri­ents from be­neath the tar­mac of Dublin Air­port and the con­crete of the City but its tap root re­mains deeply en­trenched in the coun­try­side.

So it was apt that a co­op­er­a­tive of farm­ers, owner Garth Broom, trainer Colin Tiz­zard and jockey Richard John­son should com­bine through the heroic Na­tive River to win Chel­tenham’s most cher­ished prize.

Fri­day’s Tim­ico Gold Cup was as a good a long-dis­tance duel as you will ever see; 15 run­ners but es­sen­tially a two-horse race from flag-fall to fin­ish; the gal­loper with un­lim­ited stamina against the tal­ented good look­ing play­boy-turned-Prince-Re­gent Might Bite who no one re­ally thought would like get­ting wet feet.

Hav­ing never been more than a length apart for three miles and a fur­long and hav­ing jumped the last in uni­son, it was only in­side that gru­elling last up­hill fur­long that Might Bite’s legs turned to jelly while jump rac­ing’s new­est cham­pion, Na­tive River, kept plough­ing on fi­nally to shake off his shadow.

Last year Tiz­zard’s ca­reer was on such an up­ward tra­jec­tory that as­pi­ra­tions to be cham­pion trainer looked real but, un­til Fri­day, it had been a sea­son to for­get.

A bug has laid the yard low this win­ter, an in­jury ruled Thistle­crack out of the Gold Cup and his big-hit­ting pa­tron Alan Potts, the one man with the where­withal to put it up to O’Leary, Rich Ricci and JP McManus in a horse auc­tion, passed away.

But such is the power of Chel­tenham these days his sea­son went from worst to best in 45 sur­real min­utes, from the mo­ment Na­tive River’s com­pan­ion on the horse­box from Mil­borne Port, Kil­bricken Storm, won the Al­bert Bartlett Hur­dle to the mo­ment Na­tive River re­de­fined ‘re­lent­less’. A pint of milk will never taste bet­ter than it does out of the Gold Cup.

This sea­son has not been plain sail­ing for John­son, 40, ei­ther. His main sta­ble, Philip Hobbs’s, has also been out of form all sea­son.

And though he is poised to be cham­pion again he has strug­gled with his hips; the wear and tear of 24 years in the sad­dle ap­peared to be not just catch­ing up but over­tak­ing him.

Even he, how­ever, was pow­er­less against the green tide of Ire­land for most of the week. But as wor­ried as the Bri­tish should be about the Ir­ish win­ning the Bet­bright Cup by a land­slide 17 wins to 11, Ir­ish rac­ing should be more wor­ried.

Be­cause that fig­ure skews the fact that El­liott, with a record-equalling eight wins, and Mullins, with six, could have won it for Ire­land on their own.

No­body wants a re­turn to the days when Ire­land could hardly muster a win­ner and, of course, one should never knock the bril­liance of those two train­ers but the rea­son there is a Mo­nop­o­lies Com­mis­sion is be­cause they are not much good for any­one and as much as the smaller Bri­tish trainer is not get­ting a look-in once a year at Chel­tenham, this is a daily prob­lem for his Ir­ish coun­ter­part.

I ac­tu­ally like O’Leary. He is ap­proach­able, he is provoca­tive but he en­gages and says it like it is. He knows, too. “There’s go­ing to be a ter­ri­ble run of luck com­ing,” he said af­ter his sev­enth. “I ex­pect there’s go­ing to be blank for the next two or three years.”

What did leave a bit­ter taste was that six horses never made it home from this Fes­ti­val – three of them ca­su­al­ties from Fri­day’s Grand An­nual.

It may be a sta­tis­ti­cal blip but the Bri­tish Horserac­ing Author­ity should re­con­sider hold­ing a 24-run­ner, twom­ile hand­i­cap chase as the meet­ing’s get­ting out stakes over the New Course which is more dif­fi­cult than the old one.

Cher­ished prize: Trainer Colin Tiz­zard with Gold Cup win­ner Na­tive River and own­ers Garth and Anne Broom

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